It’s still early enough in the new year for me to offer one last resolution suggestion for your STEM classroom, in addition to the excellent ones already offered by seventeen of our exemplary STEM Institute teachers in the last post.
But before I get to that resolution, I want to share a story that has been rattling around in my brain for many years.
It comes at the very end of Wind, Sand and Stars, a beautifully written book of essays by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who also wrote the beloved children’s book The Little Prince. The essays recount the author’s adventures and travels as a pilot just prior to World War II. He died in that war.
At the very end of the book, Saint-Exupéry tells of an experience he had while visiting the third-class carriages on a European train late one night. Third-class was where the poor rode, those without means. The seats were hard, comfortless. Saint-Exupéry describes those carriages, crowded with hundreds of Polish workers sent home from France, “ … a whole nation returning to its native poverty seemed to sprawl there in a sea of bad dreams,” and reflects, “Looking at them I said to myself that they had lost half their human quality. These people had been knocked about from one end of Europe to the other by the economic currents.” These words seem chillingly relevant today with so many torn from their homelands, living in refugee camps and hoping to build a new life safely away from conflict and privation.
Saint-Exupéry’s reflections finally settle on three of the sleeping Polish travelers:
“I sat down face to face with one couple. Between the man and the woman a child had hollowed himself out a place and fallen asleep. He turned in his slumber, and in the dim lamplight I saw his face. What an adorable face!
I bent over the smooth brow, over those mildly pouting lips, and I said to myself: This is a musician’s face. This is the child Mozart. This is a life full of beautiful promise. Little princes in legends are not different from this. Protected, sheltered, cultivated, what could not this child become?
When by mutation a new rose is born in a garden, all the gardeners rejoice. They isolate the rose, tend it, foster it. But there is no gardener for men. This little Mozart will be shaped like the rest by the common stamping machine … This little Mozart is condemned.
It is not an impulse to charity that has upset me like this. It is the human race and not that individual that is wounded here, is outraged here. I do not believe in pity.
What torments me tonight is the gardener’s point of view. What torments me is not this poverty to which after all a man can accustom himself as easily as to sloth. It is the sight, a little bit in all these men, of Mozart murdered.”
For me, that has always been one of the most powerful images in all of literature: The sight of Mozart murdered.
Children like this are all around us. They are in your classroom. They may have been born in the midst of poverty. They may have bleak prospects because of that happenstance of birth, even shorter lives. But each has promise. That same child, born to advantage, with all the supports advantage can provide, with all the second and third chances, with all the resources and life affirming experiences, could go on to, in the words of another favorite author of mine, “make new magic in a dusty world.” (Thomas Wolfe)
So here is my suggestion for a final New Year’s resolution: You be the one to see and rescue those Mozarts … for their sake and for ours. Be a gardener of human beings.
Time is one of their most precious possessions. Once a moment is gone, it’s gone forever. For their sake, use their time wisely. Make every moment they spend in your classroom count.
For many children, and particularly those living in poverty, education is their one chance to develop their gifts, talents, and passions. Be that teacher who respects them enough to challenge them, to demand their best, while supporting them to express it. That means do them the courtesy of planning your lessons thoughtfully, diligently; don’t waste time in transitions; find out what makes each of your students unique, and use that knowledge to hook them into learning. Don’t underestimate what they can do. Don’t baby them. Teach them the good hard stuff. Above all, don’t waste their time with activities that are time fillers, things that are easy or convenient for you to teach, rather than the real meat of learning for them. Challenge yourself as you challenge them. Go that extra mile.
Years ago, when I was a young teacher, some of us would go out after school to have a beer and talk about our day. Sometimes the subject of planning for the next day would come up, and, I’m ashamed to say, we would joke about having our students “write about the environment,” meaning have them do some decontextualized work that would keep them busy and fill the time, so that we wouldn’t have to plan anything substantive. It was a joke. I never actually did that. But, I sometimes think some of what we teachers do with students is the equivalent of just having them “write about the environment.” Maybe it’s “show a video.” Or “do a word search” or “fill out this worksheet.” It may have some value, but it’s a very modest value. And, in any case, it isn’t real and we know it. So do they.
Finally, recognize that STEM, in particular, offers tremendous future opportunities for a good life for your students, a secure future. That’s where 21st century jobs will be most abundant; at least the jobs that will pay well and provide meaningful work. When you are exciting your students about the world around them, the possibilities and challenges, the problems needing to be solved, when you are engaging them in the real stuff of science and engineering, you are opening a path for them toward that positive future.
So please be that gardener who nurtures these children and allows them to flourish, despite having emerged in poor circumstances. Like the Little Prince’s rose, your students have the capacity to blossom for you, but it will take your commitment to them for that to happen, your commitment and your resolve.
You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.